There’s a popular book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business; the author explains how to recognize, analyze, and break harmful habits. The problem: you can’t change a habit if you don’t know you’re a prisoner to it. I’m talking about the prejudice habit.

Stereotype and prejudice are different; both can block negotiations. Stereotypes are beliefs about people based on their membership in a group, and can be positive, negative, or neutral. Our brains routinely engage in this type of sorting: we tend to associate with people who are like us, and make assumptions about their worth based on the sameness of their ethnicity, class, or religious affiliation. Negative stereotypes cause us to exaggerate differences between us, see the “other” as homogeneous, and ignore any evidence that contradicts our notion of the stereotype. In negotiations, this can lead to failure.  If you’ve developed a negative stereotype about lawyers’ trustworthiness, as your negotiating partner who happens to be a lawyer, I’ll have to work harder to overcome it, assuming I’m aware.

Prejudice is a negative belief about a group of individuals. Prejudice usually gives people a reason to blame/scapegoat the “other.” We tend to fear this group, misunderstand it, or feel superior to it.

Yet with conscious effort, any bad habit, even deeply held prejudice can be broken. The challenge is to bring awareness to it by moving it from the abstract to the concrete. The following is a story from Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

The day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, a teacher in Riceville, Iowa, Jane Elliott, was struggling to explain prejudice in a way her third grade students could grasp; she decided to do an experiment that immediately transformed the classroom dynamic. She divided kids into two groups –blue-eyed and brown-eyed– and declared brown-eyed students to be superior. For an entire day, she rewarded those students with extra recess time, while forcing the others to wear collars and sit in the back of the room. The browns responded to their new status with relish, quickly slipping into the master role, shunning former friends. The blues were not so fortunate. Not only did they suffer the indignities of being treated as second class citizens, but their self-esteem and performance plummeted. Tasks took longer, ostensibly because they couldn’t think as fast (due to the collars).  The next day, Ms. Elliott declared that she had been wrong. The blue-eyed students were superior; in an instant, those students raced to the front of the classroom, eager to collar their brown-eyed masters and enjoy the fruits of superiority.

The lessons of that experiment stayed with the individuals well into adulthood. When they found themselves slipping into the habit of prejudice, they remembered what being “inferior” felt like, the burden of a collar marking them as “lesser.”  And in that present moment, they became awake –all over again— to the dangers of harboring prejudice.

A transformative negotiator acknowledges the inter-dependence of human beings. He makes connections, not assumptions. She avoids stereotyping and makes positive effort to break prejudice habits. Instead of finding ways to take advantage, this new breed of negotiators spend time closing gaps, cultivating compassion and empathy along the way.